Thus, in "A Biographical Sketch of Boyi," after questioning the existence and reliability of divine justice and retributions, Sima Qian gave an answer similar to that of Confucius, namely, that although divine justice is uncertain, you still have to uphold human justice. Never mind whether the retribution will be good or bad; simply do whatever you ought to do!
Last Tuesday, Venerable Master Hua mentioned that many people bow to the Buddhas in order to seek blessings. That's the wrong attitude. Do you really think the Buddhas, like corrupted officials in the world, will be good to you just because you bribe and flatter them? Of course not. The most important thing is your own mind and behavior. You shouldn't be acting in order to gain a certain retribution. Forget about the retribution; don't be concerned about that. Simply do whatever it is that you ought to do.
Thus, Tao Yuanming said, "If good and evil are of no consequence, why bother to utter hollow maxims?" If there is no such thing as a good or a bad retribution, why bother to say, "Good deeds bring good rewards; evil deeds bring bad retributions." Apparently, divine justice is not reliable. Later on, Tao Yuanming also spoke of human justice. At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt / And lived in hunger and cold as if he were still young. / Were it not for those individuals who chose poverty so as to preserve their integrity, / What in history would be worth passing down to future generations?
At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt. Tao Yuanming is alluding here to another episode in history. Although this poem has a mere eight lines, it is very profound and encompasses many episodes in Chinese history. The line, "At ninety, Rong used a rope as his belt," comes from a classic book called Exemplars. Rong Qiqi was a hermit who lived during the time of Confucius. One day, Confucius, who was from Qufu, Shangdong Province, went sightseeing at the nearby Mount Tai.
As he approached Mount Tai, he saw an elder man in his nineties; that man was Rong Qiqi. According to Exemplars, Rong Qiqi, "wearing a coat of deerskin with a rope for a belt, was singing as he strummed his lute." Deerskin coats were considered the clothing of the poor in ancient China. This is apparent in classical Chinese literature. For example, in Tu Fu's "Five Hundred-Word Lyric on Traveling from the Capital to Fongxian County," Tu Fu describes a scene where the Imperial Concubine Yang and others were amusing themselves at the Huaqing Palace on Mount Li. One line says, "Guests were made warm with mink and mouse fur coats," indicating that the royal family wore coats made of mink or mouse fur. From this, we know that the wealthy wore mink or mouse fur coats while the poor could only afford coats made of dogskin or deerskin.
When I was little, I lived in Beijing (then named Beiping). There were many rickshaws on the streets, and the men who pulled them often wore dogskin vests in the winter. Thus, dogskin and deerskin indicated poverty. Tao Yuanming said that Rong Qiqi was in his nineties, but still wore a deerskin coat. People were supposed to wear belts, but Rong Qiqi could not even afford a proper belt; he simply tied a rope around his waist. That's what those rickshaw operators on the streets of Beiping did; they wore a dogskin vest with a hemp rope tied at the waist. In general, the line "wearing a deerskin coat with a rope for a belt "describes Rong Qiqi's poverty in his old age.
You should know that in traditional Chinese custom, elders are accorded special respect. People feel that they ought to offer the best clothes and the best food to their elders. Mencius said, "Those who are seventy may wear silk and eat meat." It's alright for young people endure some discomfort, but seniors of seventy should be able to wear silk and eat meat, since they have worked hard all their lives and their days are limited. They should enjoy life in their old age.
Rong Qiqi was ninety, twenty years older than seventy, but he was still living in poverty. Nevertheless, he was not the least bit depressed by that fact. On the contrary, he was happily "singing as he strummed his lute" on the road. Confucius asked him, "You are ninety and still so poor. How can you be so happy?" Rong answered, "I never thought of poverty as a cause for sorrow, for it is the permanent condition of a scholar, whereas death is every man's end." He said, "Now, I am abiding in that permanent state and have reached the end." Rong said that a scholar ought to maintain a life of poverty. Confucius often mentioned this in the Analects, saying things like, "A virtuous person remains steadfast in poverty; petty people are tempted to immorality." If a person of integrity finds himself in poverty, he remains strong and is not tempted to commit immoral or unlawful acts. Petty people of low character, however, will do anything during hard times.
Mencius said, "Only a scholar can preserve his integrity without a steady income." He maintained that only a scholar could remain virtuous in the face of hardship and poverty, when he had no steady income or livelihood. Scholars were highly esteemed in ancient China because they studied in order to learn the principles of how to be good people.
To be continued